by Peter V. Brinkemper
In his exhibition Terra Incognita Wolfgang Zurborn tracks down the staging of public places which are the setting of the “Stadttheater”, Bielefeld’s municipal theatre and opera house. He deliberately does not make a distinction between historic sites and places of cultural interest, like the Old Town, on the one hand, and the bareness of a multi-storey car park on the university grounds on the other hand.
Zurborn‘s compositions of harsh and sometimes glowing colours make us see everyday life with different eyes. Details photographed from obliques angles and paradoxical reflections of interiors and exteriors highlight the platforms of public life. The curtain is up and we are guided onto the stage and behind the backdrop, where the stage machinery of the city is only partially hidden from view.
Zurborn has been working as a professional photographer for the Bielefeld City Theatre since many years. He is a constant companion to their rehearsals and performances, casting an expert eye over the interplay between light and shadow, facial expression and make-up, all so vital to capture our imagination and create illusion. With Zurborn‘s guidance, we may literally explore Bielefeld as unknown territory.
How is that achieved? The visual artist and photographer Wolfgang Zurborn puts a surprisingly ambivalent perspective on what we thought we knew already, thus uncovering, exaggerating and disintegrating the stereotypes in everyday life – the trifles which make the sum of life. Zurborn speaks of the “Dressur Real” of the ordinary things. He is a master of productive alienation (cf. Brecht’s Galilei) and experimental viewing – stylistic devices which, in many respects, resemble the dramatic tricks in a stunning production of a play.
The picture itself works as an interface for the active viewer, who must make up their mind how to react to the photographer’s choice of perspective and subject. The photograph puts the viewer (and the world) to the test: the drama of everyday life is condensed into a concrete and changeable picture, in which the stage directions, however, remain to be decoded.
by Bill Kouwenhoven
German photography is most usually associated with massively rigorous typologies and traditionally dominated by the likes of August Sander, Berndt and Hilla Becher, and more recently Andreas Gursky. Even the famous portrait photographers from Helmut Newton to Jürgen Teller are more known for their direct approaches than for any sense of humor and wit in their photographs. There are exceptions that prove the rule, and Cologne-based Wolfgang Zurborn is one of them. Now on display through November on the walls of Munich’s Reger Studios, a photo-lab cum exhibition space, Terra Incognita, a collection of recent works commissioned by the Stadttheater of Bielefeld, Germany. It is a refreshing and intelligent look at the complexities of modern living.
Bielefeld is a small, industrial city of some 325,000 people in the middle of northern Germany. Heavily damaged during the war, it was rebuilt more with an eye towards practicality than aesthetics, and during the economic booms of the 1960s and 1960s was outfitted new buildings of concrete and glass, a refurbished university, museum and so on, that mesh uneasily with the repaired older structures and polished up monuments of past years. In short, it is representative most German cities. It is a kaleidoscope of discontinuous images, strata of visual value systems, and a forest of signs with innumerable crossing paths. It is a semiotician’s delight and a pleasure for artist and viewer to walk down a street and drink in the myriad images, signage, reflections in shop windows, the architecture and other constructs that simultaneously pass before our eyes. Dial in the requisite noises and sounds, hip hop, brass bands, machinery, conversations, and the twittering of birds and beasts, and it becomes the soundtrack to the movie of our lives, our daily performance. That is, it is right under our noses if one knows how to look, or, to paraphrase Sherlock Holmes admonishing Dr. Watson, one must not just look, one must see.
Zurborn has a flair for spotting the incongruities in the day to day life we often overlook while we go about our business. In a series of images that cherish the absurd he leads the viewer through a cavalcade of vignettes in the strangest of most normal places. Whereas in the white spaces of those ancient maps that charted unknown territory, terra incognita, beyond the realm of the known, the cartographers of yore would render fanciful creature with the warning, “there be monsters,” Zurborn gives us monsters and more. The pictures delight. A maniacal Teddy bear leers from the driver’s seat of a bus. A terra cotta woman—a Roman relic?—looks hopelessly out at a sea of rusting fish skeletons seemingly left over from the retreat of the last Ice Age. In an oblique view, a saint seems to be waiting in line for his daily cheeseburger at McDonalds, while in yet another image, the hind quarters of a bronze steed seem to kick up desert red dust where none has been kicked for more than a century. Elsewhere a frozen giant squats on the reflected image of building façades like a napping Godzilla. It’s just another walk around the block for Zurborn and his camera, but for the viewer, a revelation.
His photographs from around the city center are a wonder of the revealed unseen. He refers to his way of seeing as Dressur Real—the phrase refers to Roland Barthes’s concept of dressage or conditioning of the eye, a mode of leading the viewer to see things in certain ways—represents a way of seeing the fractured modern world in its overlapping images and contexts. Zurborn has the grace of finding the sublime in the ridiculous condition of modern life, a Dadaist awareness of the found object—the ready-mades of architecture, advertising, and the masses in the street, and a surrealist sense of humour in the collision montage of juxtaposed, multi-layered images combined on a single picture plane. He seems to detach the pieces of images from their referents and recombines them into a new mosaic that remains a straight photograph. His photography, at once thoroughly modern in its attention to the post-modern effects of signs and symbols, is, however, thoroughly classical and refers the viewer back to the fact that what the camera does best is to represent the world in front of the lens. It’s all there if only we can condition ourselves to see it. Terra Incognita does represent for the first time the unknown territory we pass through every day of our lives. Wolfgang Zurborn presents the viewer at Reger Studios with a thoroughly funny, very modern and wonderfully illustrated map, monsters and all, of a very modern city.